General David Petraeus gazes out, index finger raised in admonition, looking just as authoritative as the US military commander in Iraq ought to look. Cut roughly from a newspaper, he lies on the table in Chen Ping’s studio, along with other photographs depicting dead soldiers, kidnapped children and African refugees. All of them will be transformed by the artist: their faces massively enlarged, rearranged into urgent slabs of thick paint and fractured. They will be stripped of the contexts in which the original photographer had found them and stranded alone on a blank canvas. And there, rendered vulnerable and fragile, they will slowly be turned into something quite unfamiliar. Flesh will become rock – unyielding and inorganic - or else it will liquify, dripping down the canvas in thin, pale streams. It’s like having a face suddenly loom up in front of you through the car windscreen on a dark, rainy night.
Death looms large in these paintings, not only in the choices the artist makes about whose faces he paints (both those with power over the lives and deaths of others and those who are their victims) but in the methods he uses to systematically dissect them. Yet, although we may detect echoes of the horror movie, ultimately it is not so much savagery as sadness that these images convey. They are haunted. They hint at something lost, something forsaken, something troubling about the times in which we live.
It is appropriate that Ping should choose to concentrate on the human countenance in order to tease out the despair and confusion of modern times, for nothing could so perfectly convey the self-absorption of the age. These are collective Dorian Gray portraits, co-opting and taking responsibility for the decay that underlies our heedless culture of hedonism.
Ping is not particularly interested in likenesses, despite the fact that the individuals he paints are generally identified in the paintings’ titles. Instead, he wants to convey something about what those individuals represent. Hence his predilection for public figures - those in the news; those with a story. They are invariably people who have been caught in the momentary glare of public attention, those who have made the front page of the newspaper, those we have heard about, have formed opinions about, and who we will soon forget. Not celebrities – the desperate ones who seek and need an audience in order to confirm their own existence – but those whom fame catches in its grip, unbidden and as often as not unwelcome.
Ping’s big, bold, blustery images are full of sharp, sometimes jarring, contrasts: for example, the complexity and energy of the subject against the unyielding blankness of its background; thick, heavy impasto immediately adjacent to whispy washes of liquid colour; perspective depth bumping up against emphatic flatness; parts of the face that are clearly delineated and help to identify the individual we are looking at (an eye, the curve of a mouth, a reflection of light on the end of a nose) which immediately collapse into chaotic (or at least seemingly-chaotic) abstraction.
There is a deliberate awkwardness about these paintings. They are strong, gutsy and conflicted. They are uncompromising, even uncouth. They refuse to behave nicely.
Nevertheless, however wild and expressionistic his paint-handling becomes, Ping’s Chinese academic training is never far beneath the surface. He may be rebelling against it, but he can’t escape it altogether (and indeed has no reason to want to). Subsequent studies at the Tasmanian University School of Art in Australia helped him to put his mastery of traditional techniques into a wider perspective and to fuse the influences of the artists he admired (Rembrandt, Degas, Francis Bacon and others), with contemporary theories. ‘I was’, he says, ‘luckily able to see the connections between the traditional art I knew well and the contemporary art practice. This allows me to freely explore all possibities in order to develop my own artistic language.’ Thus sharp, jarring visual contrasts are given conceptual weight through the assimilation of differing cultural traditions.
Ping’s more recent works, Dead Soldier and his Two Comrades, US Soldier Farewells his Son and Two Praying Bali Bombers, for instance, represent something of a departure. Their titles, which suggest that matter-of-fact descriptiveness characteristic of Soviet-era propaganda, may at first seem naive, a little too didactic perhaps. But the purpose of such titles is to underscore the subtly propagandistic bent of the newspaper photographs from which the images were borrowed. Where these works differ from his big portrait studies is in the organisation of elements on the canvas. The relatively simple relationship in his earlier works between the portrait head and the negative space surrounding it has now been complicated by the introduction of two or more figures placed in a discomforting conjunction, sometimes with the suggestion that they occupy differing spaces altogether.
We may guess, when we read the paintings’ titles, how the figures interconnected in the original news photograph, but we have to work at it, consciously reassembling the whole in our minds. And, in doing so, we discover something about the almost instinctual way we usually understand such photographs.
There’s a story (possibly apocryphal) about a group of Christian missionaries intending to penetrate the Amazonian jungle in the 1930s, who took the precaution of flying over the area beforehand to drop photographs of themselves in the hope that local tribespeople would welcome them when they arrived as the benign godlike individuals from the powerful machines in the sky. It didn’t work: they were killed anyway, because the natives made no such connection. The missionaries had not realised that being able to interpret a photograph and match it to something seen in reality is not instinctual but must be learned. But, of course, having been learned, it quickly falls into habit.
Chen Ping’s paintings put us all into the position of those Amazonian tribespeople. They take the overfamiliarity of news photographs and renders it mysterious, forcing us to relearn our ways of looking. They transform the banal stereotypes of news reporting into something genuinely unsettling and puzzling, making us once again strangers in a world that we thought was comfortably recognisable.